What if Ukraine Wins—Or Loses?

This is Part Three of Four; Part One can be read here, and Part Two can be read here. This is a series of pieces talking about the implications of a Ukrainian victory or a Russian victory on situations around the world. Heads up—each Part will be a long-ish read.

Assume Ukraine wins.

Ukraine will have won despite US, NATO, and EU timidity in the face of Russian threats of nuclear war. That timidity was, for instance, President Joe Biden’s (D) motive for overruling his Secretary of State and blocking Poland’s offer of a squadron of its MiG-29s to Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that providing aircraft to Ukraine would be escalatory, and Putin and some of his seconds had been hinting away with their nuclear weapons. The chatter about Poland wanting a NATO imprimatur on the transfer and so wanted to send them via the American air base at Ramstein, Germany, or that Ukraine, in the USAF’s august opinion didn’t need them, was just chatter to distract from the timidity.

Repeating from earlier, Putin also had said, among his many hints otherwise, that nuclear weapons would not be used regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine “special operation.” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary[i]:

But any outcome of the operation [in Ukraine], of course, is not a reason for usage of a nuclear weapon. We have a security concept that very clearly states that only when there is a threat for existence of the state in our country, we can use and we will actually use nuclear weapons to eliminate the threat or the existence of our country.

This only emphasizes the timidity of the West. Because of the essentially lonely nature of Ukraine’s victory, the outcome will not be the mirror image of the outcome of a Russian victory.

The situation with a Russian loss will center on a wounded and humiliated Vladimir Putin and his government, and on the People’s Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping’s reaction to the Russian loss, particularly as that loss concerns the Republic of China.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has offered in early negotiations, to acknowledge that the likelihood of Ukrainian membership in NATO is low for the near- to mid-future. That’s not the same as Zelenskyy withdrawing his request to join, and he will likely renew his request as soon as the Ukrainian military is able to consolidate its victory. After all, as Zelenskyy also has said, Ukrainian accession to NATO will be a gain for NATO not a drain on it[ii].

Zelenskyy also likely will press his application for admission to the European Union. The success of that, leaving aside the EU’s reluctance to angrify Putin (especially at the risk of rubbing Putin’s nose in his defeat), that will entail a few years of cleaning up the Ukrainian government and business environment to meet EU criteria.

With respect to that last, Zelenskyy did offer a plausible explanation of his decision to include a putatively neo-Nazi Azov battalion in his military establishment. In an interview with Fox News‘ Bret Baier (who did not address Zelenskyy’s expulsion of eleven opposition parties from his government while retaining one supposedly pro-Nazi party), Zelenskyy had this[iii] [I’ve corrected, mostly, the transcriber’s transcription errors and his and Baier’s grammar errors; I had listened to the interview live.]:

Baier: I want to have you clear something up for us and this is these reports about the Azov Battalion that is said to be Nazi affiliated organization operating as a militia in your country, said to be committing their own atrocities. What should Americans know about that unit, about those reports?

Zelenskyy: So Azov was one of those many battalions. With the caveat, they are what they are. They were defending our country, and later I want to explain to you. Pretty sure everything from all the components of those volunteer battalions later were incorporated into the military of Ukraine. Those Azov fighters are no longer self-established group. They are component of Ukrainian military. Back in 2014 there were situations when our volunteers were encircled and some of them did violate laws, laws of Ukraine, and they actually were taken to court and got prison sentences. So law is above all.

The most likely impact of the late Azov battalion is that it will feed EU reluctance and foot-dragging.

Having lost in Ukraine, Putin likely will move to try to save face by acting against Belorussia, Transnistria and then on into Moldova.

The friendliness of Russian-Belorussian relations is only skin deep—Belorussian President             Alexander Lukashenko and Putin do not like each other; they get along only because they must: Putin needs Belorussia, not only as part of a reconstituted Russian empire, but also to flank a still independent Ukraine and to give Putin an arrow, however fragile, aimed at the rest of Europe. Lukashenko needs Putin in order to stay in power. Lukashenko’s glorified hijacking of a foreign airliner in order to kidnap a journalist, together with his behavior with Arab and Afghan refugees on the Polish border, have put him in very bad odor even with his own people. The people themselves, while not Westward-looking, are not at all enamored of Russia, and they haven’t seemed favorably impressed with their nation being used as a staging ground for Putin’s adventurism. Withal, Putin will move to solidify that fragile relationship. He will likely leave some of his army units being withdrawn from northern Ukraine in Belorussia in order to encourage friendly relations.

Putin also is likely to move to settle, finally, the Transnistria question. At worst, from Putin’s perspective, a successful settlement in Russia’s favor would open another front from which to try Ukraine again at some later date. The region presently is nominally governed by a Joint Control Commission, but Moldova hasn’t actually accepted the situation, officially terming the Russian-occupied region the Administrative-Territorial Units of the Left Bank of the Dniester and an organic part of Moldova. Putin would gain credibility, at least domestically, were he to succeed in gaining formal control of the region. Putin has several Russian Army units already based in Transnistria—which haven’t moved in the war with Ukraine—with which he could encourage that Russian-favorable settlement.

Should he succeed at that, Putin will look to reincorporate, whether formally or de facto, Moldova, the ex-SSR, into the Russian empire. Those Transnistrian units would be useful for advancing that control, whether tacit or overt. Aside from recovering some credibility and taking another step toward empire reconstitution, controlling Moldova would deepen that second front against Ukraine.

Putin also will likely lash out at the Baltics and Poland with cyber attacks, but he will be unlikely to press formal hostilities against a NATO seemingly unified by his invasion of Ukraine and resurgent by its claimed role in the Ukrainian victory. Putin’s actions will be more in the nature of a temper tantrum than anything serious. He may also, in another backhanded nuclear intimidation effort, move a few more nuclear-armed IRBMs into Kaliningrad.

I tend to discount any significant change in Russian actions regarding Georgia and Azerbaijan/Armenia. In the first place, Putin will be preoccupied with his dealings with the immediate surround of Ukraine and looking for ways to reassert pressure on that nation, despite having a military establishment diminished from combat losses of men and materiel, and publicly shown to have been diminished all along through poor quality training, equipment, maintenance, and logistic capability, plus endemic corruption siphoning off materiel and funds. Too, Putin has only recently settled on terms more favorable to Russia than not, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and he’ll be anxious to consolidate that outcome prior to making any further moves along that axis. Changes in this direction must wait several years, and they’ll depend on the level of success Putin has in Moldova, Transnistria, and Belorussia. And Ukraine.

In the second place, Putin already occupies Georgia’s Abkhazia Oblast (along with its South Ossetia Oblast). This extends Russia’s eastern Black Sea coast, and adding the rest of the Georgian coast wouldn’t add enough—yet—to be worth the trouble.

That raises the question of Russia’s relations with the EU, UK, US, and the PRC. Putin’s success at any of the above moves depends heavily on the status of the sanctions levied against Russia pursuant to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. With the end of that war, Putin will press for the sanctions being lifted. President Biden has indicated that the sanctions should be left in place until Putin is no longer in power. The Polish government is strongly inclined to agree, as will be the newly victorious Ukrainian government.

The peoples of Western Europe, which even now have not experienced war’s ravages except for what they see on their television sets, will be less inclined to continue the costs of the sanctions. I anticipate Germany and Italy, especially, will look to have them lifted quickly so they can go back to getting all that cheap Russian oil and natural gas. Much is made in the press of Biden’s success in cobbling together the economic and military supply coalition that aided Ukraine; the new test will be whether he can hold it together for a few years longer. Putin will not go quietly or quickly.

Putin will turn to his new very best friend, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping. He’ll be looking to sell oil and gas into the PRC economy and to borrow money from Xi’s banks to cover the shortfalls caused by the sanctions and to pay for attempts to reconstitute his military establishment.

Xi will willingly lend Putin all he wants to borrow, and at favorable monetary rates. The true vigorish will come in the form of increased rights to Siberia, and favorable treatment of his BRI efforts through Kazakhstan and such other ‘Stans as might become useful to Xi. This is a lesson southern Road borrowers have learned and that Putin will learn. That collateral will be collected on the first late payment. Putin is likely to find Xi an enemy kept too close, but that’s a few years into the future.

Putin will look hard at India, also, in the aftermath of his defeat. Arms sales have been another source of income for Russia, and India has long been a willing buyer. With the increasing belligerence of the PRC along the Indian-PRC and Bhutan-PRC borders, India will—and has been—stepping up its arms purchases from Russia, along with attempts to buy from the US. India also is becoming more active in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a growing security arrangement among India, Japan, Australia, and the US, an arrangement aimed at mutual support against the PRC. This QUAD also encourages Indian arms buying, including from Russia. Russian ability to produce and deliver, however, is increasingly hampered by those sanctions, and the more so, the longer the sanctions remain in place. Putin may well find himself offering to deliver arms to India on Tuesday for a payment today.

In addition to arms, India has been an enthusiastic buyer of Russian oil. On both oil and arms, India has been trying to walk the narrow causeway between Russia and the West, and Putin will seek to exploit that to his advantage.

Putin will continue his saber-rattling against the US, given the partial success he had at that during his invasion of Ukraine, but his loss there will have defused much of his nuclear bluster. The US will largely ignore the bluster while seeking to build on the ties with NATO, EU, and UK that were partially renewed through the efforts vis-à-vis dealing with Russia’s invasion.

The People’s Republic of China—Xi and his PLA commanders—will have closely observed the failure of Russian arms, from training through logistics and maintenance to performance during movement to contact and under fire, and they will take a number of lessons from that.

One lesson is the differences in terrain between the relatively open Ukrainian land, even if swamps are present, compared to the essentially mountainous terrain of the island of Taiwan. Given the trouble even the transport challenged Russian units had—limited as they were to roads once inside Ukraine—moving across Ukraine’s relatively flat terrain, the PLA will carefully review its mobility capacities in those mountains.

Another may be the degree of arrogance by Putin and his command staff, especially regarding Ukraine’s political and military capability. The PLA command staff may not learn this lesson well, though: the PRC is at the center of heaven and believes it to be Chinese destiny to rule. That’s not conducive to maintaining a good balance between confidence and humility.

Another lesson available to the PRC is the impact of corruption on force readiness. The Soviet Long Range Aviation (strategic bombing) and Frontal Aviation (fighter aircraft) generally had an operationally ready rate of under 50%—less than half the aircraft in each force could be launched for combat; the bulk of the airframes were, to use an old USAF technical term, hard broke, with many of them no better than hangar queens. The forces were in such poor shape because from command staff on down to unit commanders, funds for maintenance, pay, and supplies were siphoned off for personal use. A possibly apocalyptic example is the claim that one of the reasons the aircraft had such a poor OR rate is that the alcohol-based hydraulic fluid was drunk by the lower ranks of maintainers. Their pay had been stolen by their commanders, so they had no money to buy real alcoholic beverages.

The Russian land and air forces employed in Ukraine were victims of the same sort of rampant corruption, which led to poor quality equipment, lack of maintenance supplies and weak fuel transport, even of food.  The funds intended to provide for these were largely siphoned off for personal gain of the oligarchs and the Kremlin command staff generals.

Corruption is just as entrenched in the PLA, along with the rest of the PRC government. The degree of effect on force readiness, though, remains uncertain due to the lack of actual combat use of any of the PLA branches. The recent kerfuffle between India and the PRC over the Bhutan-PRC border provides no indication; that was just a playground scuffle.

There are two likely results from these lessons which the PRC is likely to apply as it contemplates the Republic of China. One is to reconsider its plans to take control of the island by force “if necessary.” The PRC may decide to put off a forcible takeover, and it may put off the idea of physical isolation of the island until it has properly tested its units. The risk it runs here is that the delay would give the QUAD, and especially the US and Australia, time to increase and improve the RoC’s equipage and training. Delay also would give Australia time to improve its navy to the point of being a serious challenge in the South China Sea and along the Outer Island Barrier. Delay would give the US similar opportunity to redress is naval shortfalls, restoring it to a serious force in the Pacific and in the South and East China Seas.

The other likely result is that the PRC will decide to strike now, militarily, “now” being as soon as it can plus up its invasion force to an utterly overwhelming one so that it can hit the RoC with a coup de main before a response can be mounted by the RoC, or Australia, or the US. The risk the PRC runs with this is mountain guerilla warfare, which the PLA has not fought for 85 years and never without interior lines of communication or the support of the people—and never against guerillas rather than as guerillas. A prolonged conflict—longer than a few days—gives Australia and the US time to enter the fight and materially help the RoC drive off the PLA. Of course, the same implicit threats Putin has been using regarding nuclear war to back the US down regarding Ukraine could work just as well for Xi, as could the US’ helplessness against cyber attack.

It’s unclear to me which result Xi will take. The risks of nuclear war are as great for the PRC as they are for the US, if not worse. They boast of a population of 1.5 billion against our 330 million, but we have means of getting food to our survivors. The PRC does not. Their population is concentrated, in a relatively narrow band along its coast, while ours is more dispersed and so less vulnerable en masse. Also, arable land exists all over North America, not just in the US; the PRC has limited arable land, and much that is made possible by the Three Gorges Dam, a facility unlikely to survive the series of nuclear exchanges involved in a nuclear war. Nor is the PRC interested in having Russia pick up the Asian pieces. They’re allies for the moment against the common enemy of the US, but their mutual enmity goes back to the initial existence of a Russian polity.

The PRC also will be watching a triumphant and increasingly confident US, for all the minor role it played in the Ukrainian victory; along with an increasingly confident UK, with its historical presence in the Pacific (if currently greatly reduced); and an increasingly confident and steadily better armed Australia.

Xi is likely to try to improve relations with the nations rimming the South China Sea, primarily Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines in an effort to solidify PRC control of that Sea. That’ll be a fine trick, though, with Vietnam; the PRC and Vietnam have never gotten along, and Vietnam is unlikely to forget the PRC’s pressure on it to leave its fisheries and oil development in its Exclusive Economic Zone that extends so far out into the South China Sea. Nor is Vietnam likely to forget the PRC’s attempt to invade and conquer Vietnam a bare 45 years ago. On top of this, with the PRC’s occupation of Tibet, Xi controls Southeast Asia’s fresh water supply, which rises from the Tibetan Plateau. Xi is using that to control water levels in the Mekong River and so to pressure Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam views that with considerable suspicion and concern for its own fresh water access.

Thailand has too many domestic distractions presently, beginning with its constitutional crisis centered on who actually rules the nation, to be very responsive to PRC overtures. Beyond its internal problems, Thailand also is unhappy with Xi’s weaponizing Tibetan Plateau fresh water outflows, seeing the pressure on Cambodia and Laos as easily extensible to itself.

The Philippines is growing increasingly disgruntled with the PRC’s treatment of it, despite any effort by Xi at rapprochement: the PLAN’s constant harassment of Philippine boats in the Philippine fisheries and of Philippine attempts at other natural resource development in the Spratlys, for instance, won’t be set aside easily. Despite similar disgruntlement with the US, the Philippines and the US are beginning to draw closer, again, if only for the Philippines to use the US as a counterweight against the PRC.

All of that means that—absent any overt moves against the RoC—the sea lanes of commerce will remain relatively safe and open and free.

The PRC will try to expand its BRI efforts in the Indian Ocean, particularly with port development in Pakistan, along with a land route development effort connecting the PRC-Pakistan border with the PRC funded port development in Gwadar. The Pakistanis, too, though, are growing less enchanted with the financial—which is to say, debt—structure of PRC arrangements. On top of that, Pakistan has its own local distractions, a constitutional crisis over whether the nation’s legislature has the authority to toss its Prime Minister, Imran Khan; its disputes with India over, among other excuses to fight, Kashmir; its internal struggles with the Haqqani network; and its worries centered on an out-of-control Taliban in Afghanistan along with a possibly reviving al Qaeda there.

In addition, the PRC will face reduced economic engagement with the West and with the rest of Asia as the RoK, Japan, and especially the US, Australia, and UK move to relocate their supply chains and raw material sourcing away from the PRC, along with greatly reducing their investment and business venturism in the PRC and with PRC businesses operating outside the mainland. The PRC’s continued effort to apply its National Intelligence Law and its continued (if lip service-reduced) requirement that businesses “share” technology and intellectual property as a condition of doing business within it will serve only to accelerate that economic separation.

The resulting reduced economic activity for a nation that remains primarily agrarian and rural for all its industrial development since Deng Xiaoping’s efforts in the late 1970s will increasingly limit the nation’s ability to fund improvements in the PLA’s equipage and manpower, even to maintain the present status quo.

With a Ukrainian victory, the PRC’s relationship with the RoC becomes especially critical. If Xi decides to move against the island nation and succeeds, then the Ukrainian victory will become irrelevant, and all of the Asian follow-ons posited for a Russian victory will become operational. If Xi decides to delay any moves against the RoC in the face of the Ukrainian victory, then he will work to tamp down his (relative) aggressiveness vis-à-vis Japan, the RoK, and Australia, and he will seek improvements in trade and business relations with the US.

If Xi decides to move against the RoC and fails, then a weakened PRC and a face-losing Xi will have to deal with increasing pressures to quit his Nine-Dash Line-based seizure of the South China Sea and quit his manufactured islands—which remain claimed by (and disputed among) the Sea-rimming nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. In this environment, too, Malaysia and Indonesia, on the southern rim of the Sea, likely will become more assertive about their claims. Xi may or may not accede to these, but the distractions will limit his ability to move elsewhere, especially given his own diminished PLA or economic endeavors after failing against the RoC.

I anticipate that these consequences will unroll over the succeeding 10-15 years, if they occur at all. It may well be that most, or even many, of these consequences will not ensue; however, the risk of pushing for outright victory, coupled with plain declarations that Ukraine must win, and fortified with active (re)supply of the weapons, ammunition, training, and supplies necessary, a Ukrainian victory will be well worth the gains, economic, political, and sovereign, that just some of them occurring would yield. And not only for the Ukrainian people. As Zelenskyy has often said, Ukraine is fighting for European freedom as well as its own[iv].

[i] https://to.pbs.org/3KcE7Iy

[ii] https://bit.ly/3v3k6Ok

[iii] https://bit.ly/3NGBelw Scroll ahead to about 4:16

[iv] https://bit.ly/3O6mflg

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